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Friday, November 30, 2018

Nordic Affect, He(a)r

Nordic Affect is an Icelandic Modern Chamber quartet. They have a new one. I covered an earlier one happily on March 6, 2017. One year and a half later I am still here. Still writing these reviews. And I am again happy to write on this group of very adept and forward leaning women, about their new album He(a)r (Sono Luminus 92224 CD & 5:1 Blue Ray Disk).

Graphic design should have no other function than to introduce prospective listeners/customers to climb into the music, and initially to buy it. That said, knock-out type from a grey background would have gotten designers fired from every job I'd ever had in the pre-internet pre-DIY publishing and music days. If artists and persons involved ask me about a certain artist and release and I have no idea because I cannot even read the cover, there is something not right. And forgive me but I have real trouble reading the information on this release because the design is not geared for the reader but instead for some image thing. If you do not know what it is or what is on it, what are you getting from such graphics? I am grouchy today so I am saying it for this release but really it is true of maybe 70% of the music I receive.

That being said let me try and decipher what it is I have been listening to happily. Halla Steinunn Stefansdottir is on violin and voice, Guorun Hrund Hardardottir is on viola and voice, Hanna Loftsdottir plays cello and uses her voice and Gudron Oskarsdottir plays harpsichord and too uses her voice. Now if I have spelled anyone's name wrong (and I am sorry about the accents, my system is not clearly adapted to such things) blame this design!

Well there are seven compositions to be enjoyed on this program. There is ambiance, there are spoken word poeticisms and narratives, there is New Music interplay of a high order, post-counterpoint you might say. And the music is a very fine thing to me. Halla gives us the title composition and it goes by in a flash even though it is ten minutes long--that because it is a wondrous sculpting, a vibratoless post-modern chorale that fascinates and encourages to listen. He(a)r is a play on the English "hear" and the Icelandic "her" (with an accent), which means in the language "hear." Of course then I guess there is the play on "her" as a denotation of a woman. It is far from irrelevant since the feminine excellence of this music is an important trait, that it is a woman's musical force we hear and I say amen.

I am not going to try and figure out the names and titles of the works here. They appear all to be Icelandic women and I congratulate them because the music is exceedingly beautiful and engaging. Not everything is new-lyric and that is good, just like a meal is best if it is not about one taste in unrelenting sameness. The space for the extended technique sort of Modernity is used creatively and wisely and it frames and brackets the tonal washes properly and bracingly.

I could say a great deal more because this is not a music that easily fits into the usual labels. Yes everything about the Modern New Music scene has some relation to this set of musics. We hear on he(a)r a uniquely original stance that the compositions and performances embody. That is encouraging and also very rewarding to hear. So listen, do that and you will h(e)(a)r-(h)ea(r) and perhaps exclaim "here-here!" I did that to myself in response. Bravo!

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Matthew Shlomowitz, Avant Muzak, Asamisimasa, Hakon Stene

The key to the music of Matthew Shlomowitz as contained in the recent CD is latent in the two pronged idea of the title, Avant Muzak (ATD2). There is that double-take duplicity in the music made by the group asamisimasa, Hakon Stene on percussion and the composer manipulating and sequencing the sounds in various ways. The composer seeks to take musical and audio material that is often initially on the banal side and repurpose it to an Avant-Modern series of works. Here style permutes and mutates in fluid and unbounded ways. That can be liberating.

So among the various musical strains are concrete sounds of appliances and tools, scratchy record surfaces, a baby crying, conversation snippets, sirens and alarms, electronic bleeps and bloops here and there, and what have you, including a small bit of music sampling outside of what the instrumentalists are doing here. There is what sounds like an Electronica rendition of Debussy's "Afternoon of a Faun" and it is both funny and oddly moving. This music does have a sense of humor and all the better for that.

Otherwise the asamisimasa group and Stene are central to what goes on. They most times form a sort of combo with Ellen Ugelvik on all manner of keyboards, Kristine Ugelvik on clarinet, Tanja Orning on cello, Anders Forisdal on sometimes quite electric guitar, and the aforementioned Hakon Stene on percussion, drums and electric drums I presume.

There is a tension between real-time performance and the sampling style of Cubistic rapid cuts and juxtipositions. This is key to the sound overall. There are three suite-like works, each with multiple movements, "Popular Contexts 7: Public Domain Music," "Popular Contexts 8: Five soundscapes for a contemporary percussionist" and the title work "Avant Muzak."

Most parts have vernacular elements, a Reggae motif, moments that sound like Progressive Avant Rock, etc. The best things have a deliberately scumbled chiaroscuro collaging going on. Real-time is on notice and the banality loses to the avant most of the time!

You would do well to listen closely to the music as it tells you what you need to know far better than my words are doing here. With the Pop world taking a key from classic Electronic Music for so many decades now, we get a kind of reverse feedback with Shlomowitz's adventurous musical program. And it is a fitting payback.

This you should hear. We spend most of us nowadays a good bit of our daily lives in virtual time. Shlomowitz gives us a vision of the absurdity and drama of that world, a sonic representation of the constant recombinatory nature of it all. It is a Post-Modern statement for sure and it epitomizes a kind of cultural mish-mosh in ways that are serious and funny at the same time. Recommended.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

La Patrie, Our Canada, Canadian Orchestral Music 1874-1943

This is an album that if it were never made, one might have to imagine it. Why? Because, for those that need to know, and sometimes that includes me, Canada is a real place with real people, a real country where everyone lives and dies like we all do and in between they make real art and real music, and we should not forget that and try to listen to it--the music I mean. Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, Oscar Peterson, OK, this should give you an indication that Canada is NOT some backwater. So what about Classical music?

There are all kinds of things to hear and I try to cover as much as I can. One that came out recently promises much even just in its title, La Patrie, Our Canada, Canadian Orchestral Music 1874-1943 (Centredisks 25618). Well as soon as I heard about it I made sure I got a copy. And I played it a bunch of times and loved the music, but there was something about the sound that puzzled me. In the acoustics of my current living space it was not clear. But then I listen with earphones today and I recognize what was strange. The instrumental performers are all very good, but then sometimes the masses of orchestral strings are sampled and that was what seemed so strange sounding. Shelley Katz is the person behind all of this. He calls himself the "symphonist," Truth to tell he creates an orchestral backdrop with only 12 musicians but it gives you an excellent of idea what a full blown orchestral reading would sound like. So that I must say right off the bat. He performs a miracle in a way.

No problem so long as you realize this. No problem because this is music that needs to be heard. We get eight works by eight composers spanning the time indicated in the title. Some of the names I know and have heard the music by, but all too few and as I listen I know it has been my loss, because this is very worthwhile music in styles one might expect of each period, but not written by slouches or hacks, certainly. Far from that.

So you get a work each by the likes of Calixa Lavallee (1842-1891), Clarence Lucas (1866-1947), Rudolphe Mathieu (1890-1962), Ernest MacMillan (1893-1973), Georges Emile Tanguay (1893-1964), Murray Adaskin (1906-2002), Violet Archer (1913-2000), and John Weinzweig (1913-2006). Most of these people were alive when we were (except maybe for some millennials) and so they are/were our contemporaries.

And I must say it is good to hear this music. Is all of it breakthrough masterpieces that should have stopped the movement of time? Probably not. Still we need to hear this music and more of it I think. So bravo for it. After reading this if you feel you are interested, well do not hesitate. It gives you some of the Canadian music you might have missed. And good for that. Not missing it I mean.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Eriks Esenvalds, The Doors of Heaven, Portland State Chamber Choir, Ethan Sperry

The Latvian composer Eriks Esenvalds (b. 1977) writes choral music that has a pronounced ambiance, replete with drones and spicy harmonics that flourish with such things as a major second simultaneity cluster or other exotic Modernism added to a sort of ritualistic old world palette. One might note the composer's general affinity with Arvo Part, except then you realize too that he goes his own way, with something one might call ceremonial choral diatonics with Post-Modern harmonic seasoning?

At least that is what I hear on the nicely ruminating series of choral works that form the program on The Doors of Heaven (Naxos 8.579008),  a CD that I have inadvertently overlooked for a little while but now unearth happily and I find myself gravitating towards. Estonia, Latvia, Georgia, places with old choral traditions that we hear in a batch of New Music composers, at least two anyway. Or maybe a few more too but there is the Orthodox Byzantine and beyond to a Russian Orthodox music spanning many centuries so there is a kind of glorious mystery music that we can see as precursors today among a few, even I would mention the late John Tavener. Yet all that is not at all obvious with Eriks Esenvalds. Just a kind of something in the "world air" so to say?

The Portland Chamber Choir under Ethan Sperry give us ravishing readings of four Esenvalds works written over the recent present of 2006 to 2015. They flow together into a movingly ambient whole, each slightly different but all in the way of a piece.

So it is a delight to hear "The First Tears" (2015), "Rivers of Light" (2014), "A Drop in the Ocean" (2006) and "Passion and Resurrection" (2006). Esenvalds clearly has an excellent grasp of what might sound well with the SATB configuration and gives us ethereal sounds that transport us to an almost mythical, enchanted canopy of human voices. Why is it that such harmonic spiciness should sound so well with the right gathering of voices?  One answer is that Esenvalds knows what will work and does it. Perhaps also because there is on a daily basis little enough Modernity for chorus that generally enters the ears in what one finds out there, or at least I am not overwhelmed with a vast amount of excellent Modern choral music. So this is all the more valuable for all that.

This is music that transfixes, perfect perhaps for those eerie silent early winter evenings? Or fall sunny days where memories crowd the experiencing self and need to be coral-ed and sent packing after a while. This music supplies you with a magical present to counter all that with an effervescently obsidian sharpness and shine of memory flow!

So heartily do I recommend this.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Alfred Bruneau, L'Attaque du moulin - Suite, Barcelona Symphony Orchestra, Darrell Ang

Are we being exposed to too many obscure Late Romantics lately? It is possible that I am. But then I want to know all things musical, so I do ask for it.  And how about some more Ernest Krenek somebody? All this is not so relevant today with Alfred Bruneau (1857-1934) because though he is pretty obscure and sometimes indeed rather Late Romantic he is in a French way also Pre-Impressionist with orchestral luster and twinkle and not all emotive gigantism. Not so much, just a bit. Or so that is at least the case on the new CD L'Attaque du moulin - Suite (Naxos 8.573888).

Darrell Ang and the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra give is a boldly engaged reading of
L'Attaque (1893) plus the Prelude from ACT IV of "Messidor" (1897), the Prelude from ACT I of "Nais Micoulin" (1907) and Tableau I "La Legende du Or" from ACT III of "Messidore" (1897). There is a mood-setting, pictorially evocative strain to all this music, which is fitting as the works we hear function in several of his operas to set scenes. or in the case of the Suite there are three movements joined together as a "drame lyrique" that conjures a rustic world quite livingly pictorial.

The liners call his efforts a kind of "natural theatre," a realism he shared with his friend Zola. Of course such things are more clearly contained in the overall sweep, in the libretto and dramatic arch of the full operas. And that for the sake of this program is not entirely here nor there. It does serve to frame the music that we do hear and is not at all irrelevant since the pictorialism is (one can suggest) an aspect of naturalism I suppose. So it is important to it keep in mind regardless.

The influence of Wagner is to be felt throughout, but then there is something else that the liner/blurb calls appropriately "Gallic." Yes! He was a pupil of Massenet and one can find a bit of that if one looks for it.

In all however there is something quite engaging in this orchestral music that gives us an original streak. He is to turn-of-the-century France as much perhaps as Ries was to early 1800s Austria (see my 11-23 review article of several days ago for that). That is, both were a solid and singular voice of their era who we have in large part forgotten today.

Ang and the Barcelona Symphony handle these brilliant orchestrations with the attention to detail and faithfulness of execution appropriate to Bruneau's way.

I would not hesitate to recommend this to anyone interested in the French scene as it was at the first sunrays of the dawn of the Modern Era. I am glad myself to have it and to hear it.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

David Rosenmann-Taub, Primavera Sin Fin

This is the 3rd in my new Mini-Review Series, short reviews of things that are worth exploring but I have right now no time to cover in depth.

Pianist David Rosenmann-Taub is an avant garde player with a very dynamic and energetic style that falls in its own space somewhere between Cecil Taylor's Improv-Jazz and New Music keyboard explorations. There is sometimes multi-tracking, a very little bongo and a few add synthesizer, which is not quite as engaging to me as his piano. All are presented on the 2-CD Primavera Sin Fin  (Endless Spring) (MSR Classics MS1353 2-CDs). He is someone to contemplate, and when he is totally on top of things, he shines with some brilliance. So I do recommend you listen!

Schubert, The Complete Original Piano Duets, Goldstone & Clemmow

A second in the Mini-Review Series; things I simply must say nice things about but have run low on time.

OK, anyone with even a passing fancy for the music of Schubert, you are on notice. With the beautiful 3-LPs that came out in the Stone Age, by Badura-Skoda and Demus, as perhaps at least some of it is on CD now, where do I get off talking about Goldstone & Clemmow's 7-CD The Complete Original Piano Duets (Divine Art dda 21701)? Note that it is the COMPETE duets. Plus it ends each disk with a Schumann "Polonaise."  The Duo does a nice job with the music, and the music itself is really worth having if you are Schubert-centric like I am. Perfect for the holiday stocking, but for yourself!

Duo Beija-Flor, Costas, Works for Guitar and Flute

NOTE: Given the huge amount of worthwhile music I receive, I sometimes find there are not enough hours in the day to cover all of what I would like. So today I introduce the MINI-Review Series, a review of something I feel is very worthwhile yet I cannot cover in-depth due to time running out! In this kind of review I provide a sentence or two about the music and why I feel it is worth hearing and having.

First up is Costas, Works for Guitar and Flute by the Duo Beija-Flor (Big Round 8953). The idea here is that this Duo gives us a very nice series of compositions, sometimes in new arrangements, from composers of the Atlantic coasts, music from Europe, specifically Spain and Portugal, and the Spanish-Portuguese Diaspora in Latin and South America. Charles Hobson on guitar and Marie-Noelle Choquette on flute are both excellent artists and it is a pleasure to hear them bring to life some well-known and lesser-known works by DeFalla, Assad, Piazzolla, Saul, Ellias, Machado and Robinovitch. Very nice! A feast for the ears.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Yaniv d'Or & Ensemble NAYA, Exaltation, From Sephardic to Sufi in Medieval Music

Lest we forget the impact of the Judaic and Islamic diaspora on Medieval Europe and beyond, there is the recent Exaltation (Naxos 8.573980). Countertenor Yaniv d'Or and the stylistically diffuse and musically astute Ensemble NAYA give us a follow-up to their earlier Latino Landino (Naxos), which traced the musical heritage of Sephardic culture following their tragic expulsion from Spain along with the Muslim population after 1492. This new sequel casts a wide net from Medieval and Baroque Europe, Turkey and the Mideast to recreate a music of self-determination and movement, joy and the proud certainty of a pluralist identity in a volatile world. I have yet to hear the first volume but I can most certainly vouch for this one.

The music reminds us that reconstructing the Early Music world can sometimes be like creating an entire dinosaur from the material presence of just a finite number of bones. We know of course a fair amount about performance practices in the earlier forms of music over and above what was physically written as melodic line and lyrics. This of course is a vital concern outside of the music of the church in early Europe and beyond, since the musical lifeworld then did not think it necessary (or perhaps even possible) to preserve the spontaneous folk moment of a particular performance. Moreover the background knowledge of such practice of course is not infinitely available to us nor is it generally prescriptive for any given song.  It is a fact that increasingly imaginative arrangements are now the rule in Early Music performance practices to make up for that lack, so that musical traditions are recreated as much in the present as they are reconstructed out of the past. We imagine the world then as, shall we say, as "ethnic" as it ever has been in our own world. So we can imagine, for example that a drummer in such an ensemble might play a complex role in the music, may have at hand a set of techniques and may create a variety of variable sounds such as we find still the case in living World Music traditions today. Similarly in the early ensembles the overall instrumentation itself and what they were made to sound come alive in recent times via an imaginative reconstruction of what we know of the period and the survival of traditions in the original homes of the diaspora movements.

So all that holds true quite nicely in Exaltation, with a fascinating blend of some 16 diverse pieces, centering on Yaniv d'Or's accomplished and beautiful countertenor vocals and an ever shifting set of ensemble instruments and parts that imagine a world as exotic and as excitingly, timbrally rich as it no doubt was in real-world, local performance situations. So the flamenco guitar style rubs shoulders with the hammer-sounded equivalent to the santur, the dumbak and ney flute take their place with other more typically Medieval European instruments. All this makes the program both highly attractive and imagines nicely for us the exotic, less easily transcribed timbres of the music as it no doubt sounded at the time, though of course some positivist surety may never quite exist save the discovery of the time machines that would allow our senses to recreate the period exactly as we might experience it!

The music has great beauty and memorability and there is a fitting relevance today to programmatic themes of exaltation, the joy in life and the fervent wish for peaceful co-existence. We might still find such aims a worthy goal in the world today, surely.

This is music one may take some acclimatizing to appreciate fully. But then too it gives you yet another avenue into the self and other as connected to our own and other's musical heritage and traditions, the delight of discovery in the possibilities musically the past gives to us, and the ever cross-fertilization of musical and living cultures in motion. There is a joy in musical joy and there is the joy of discovery the music offers us readily. This album has both joys available to us in a happily generous quantity and that is surely a good thing.

Beautiful! Very recommended for all adventuresome souls. And a must if you keep up with Early Music realms.

Ferdinand Ries Sonatas for Violin and Piano 3

Ferdinand Ries (1784-1838) was close friends with Beethoven. They both studied with Ferdinand's father.  They both absorbed the Viennese milieu. You do not hear Beethoven in Ries's music so much as you hear Austria in both their musics. And in the recent volume Sonatas for Violin and Piano 3 (Naxos 8.573862) you hear Ries, a talented composer with a good deal of inventive elegance and lyrical charm, a composer who quite clearly learned from Mozart and Haydn and made of it all something of his own.

Eric Grossman on violin and Susan Kagan on piano show us that they have fully absorbed the Ries style and give us a very fine set of performances for the three sonatas represented here.

And the music itself is inventive, valued, bright and shimmering in a Late Classical mode. There are thematic elements that you appreciate as you become more familiar with the music and indeed, the music wears well with many listens, more so than with less! It is music to live with, as all worthwhile music should be.

Very recommended.

Marco Stroppa, Space, Ensemble KNM Berlin

The name Marco Stroppa (b. 1959) may ring a bell with you or it may not. Based on the recent album of his chamber music Space (Wergo 7372 2) I would say he deserves our attention as a living High Modernist of distinction. The album presents three works of note that explore aural space and extended techniques, played with dedication and imaginative precision. The works are "Hommage a Gy. K." for clarinet/bass clarinet, viola and piano, "Un Sagno Nello Psazio" for String Quartet, and "Osja, Seven Strophes for a Literary Drone" for violin, violincello and piano.

"Hommage" is a study in repetition cycles that lies somewhere between the carpet patterning of Feldman's "For John Cage" (discussed the other day on these pages) and the trance minimalism of a Reich or early Riley.

"Un Segno Nello Spazio" is a vibrant study in the abstract contrasts of extended string techniques in tandem and in spatial suspension, so to speak.

"Oska, Seven Strophes for a Literary Drone" makes ready and creative use of the idea of the piano trio in the Modern period. The piano part alone intrigues but then too of course there is much to appreciate in the three-way confluence and extended string  techniques that allow us to enter, relax and dwell for a time within a deep repository of poetic aural worlds.

The liners to the album mention Stroppa's prominent standing at IRCAM in the '80s, his highly developed innovations in the area of computer aided acoustics and the idea of this album's program as a kind of set of musical reflections on aural space. Space is a part of the musical experience as a Kantian universal yet too as a pliable medium capable of manipulation as Einstein's relativity suggests. Stroppa, the liners go on to explain, makes use of both the vertical dimensions of counterpointed interplay but also the idea of a 3-D attention to foreground and background.

I will leave it to those who get into the music to delve into these ideas more concretely as it is up to the listener to come to terms with Stroppa's thinking in the direct listening experience. And a good thing that is in my opinion.

One lives within this music for a time and one enters into a world of measured creativity and original poetics. Stroppa is a master and anyone into the advanced Modernist realms will find this album something both fascinating and bracing. A chamber music cornucopia of  well considered musical ideas. Bravo!

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Wilhelm Kempff, Chamber Music. Quartetto Raro

Many of you who are classical enthusiasts might well recognize the name of Wilhelm Kempff (1895-1991). You may remember his presence as a master pianist. You may have some of his recordings as I do. Chances are you did not know of his composing, nor for that matter did I.  All that can be remedied with a new program of some of his Chamber Music (Brilliant 95629), played with a bit of panache by the Quartetto Raro.

Right off the bat I was impressed by the lyricism and poise of these two works. They are in a sort of Late Romantic vein, yet much does not at all strike one as potboiler or boilerplate but rather distinctly musical in its own light, its own right. If you listen a few times the music jumps out of the CD and invites you to contemplate it. There is a kind of statue-esque way the flute, strings and piano interact together, or for that matter the strings and piano. The music involved is his "Quartet in G Major" for flute, violin, cello and piano and his "Trio in G minor" for violin, cello and piano. Neither work is lightweight in any sense. Nor is it chamber music that should have stopped the hands of time itself. It is nonetheless very enjoyable music to hear, and shows that Kempff's own music well deserves our ears.

Brilliant is one of those labels who for a very modest cost provides us with exotic and nearly always interesting repertoire options. The Wilhelm Kempff disk is a sterling example of how good but unfamiliar music can be had out there for a very small investment. This is not at all a typical Late Romantic offering by an also-ran. It is original and does not Schumann or Chopin you to submission! It is something new-old and worthwhile. Recommended.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Morton Feldman, For John Cage. Aisha Orazbayeva, Mark Knoop

Much as it is "getting late early" in the world, to paraphrase Yogi Berra's characterization of the sundown-shadow experience in Yankee Stadium when playing outfield instead of catcher, there is a maturity-to-Modernity shift palpable now that may catch you by surprise if you aren't thinking about it. For example Morton Feldman's landmark For John Cage we may be surprised to hear has now been with us some 36 years (since it was written in 1982). I can remember the recording of it, the first recording I still have somewhere around here, and the surprise and elation it invoked in me when I first heard it. Yet as things stood in those days, time did not come to a stop (as if it ever does) so life went on, until I found that both Cage and Feldman passed (Feldman in 1987, Cage in 1992) and we have all had to wake up every morning and believe our lives really mattered, for they have! Mattered, that is.

Still it is a great shock sometimes to feel the passing of the past. Meanwhile For John Cage has gone on to become one of Feldman's most frequently performed and recorded works. And now there is another, a new one (ATD1), as performed by Aisha Orazbayeva on violin and Mark Knoop on piano.

Where and how do we find For John Cage so compelling? And do we? Well I surely do. It is Modern-Tonal in the pieces that go into the construction of the music. They are all the opposite of cliche, and they all have a quietness that is part of the Feldman way as you know. But then the familiar analogy of the music as a Persian carpet must be mentioned, because it really does do the music justice. Minimalism in the classic form repeats to mesmerize, to foreground itself  like we might if we say a word repeatedly until it becomes "other." The originality and brilliance of this Feldman work is that yes, there are repetitions but they function rather archi-tectonically. They form patterns like on an oriental carpet--the patterns recur only then to be replaced by other decorative patterns that if you envision the carpet unfolding before your eyes from top-to-bottom, you see work together for a whole that is a great deal more than just a sum of the individual parts. It is a matter of part-with-part holism.

So this music deftly unfolds and each motif is somehow related to what went before, yet not organizationally in connection like with Trance Minimalism, but instead decoratively-abstractly like the Persian rug. It is music that is exceedingly beautiful yet exceedingly odd compared to most music we hear. It is a masterwork, for sure.

And this Orazbayeva-Knoop version reminds you how hard it is to completely focus in on playing each pattern and moving ahead endlessly for 74 minutes. The duo execute it all flawlessly. And what I really like about the performance is that they do not try to connect each piece one with the others but rather let them spin out each in their own right. Now you might argue that it cannot be played any other way but I would still assert that each pattern piece feels independent here and that is a subtle but a very important thing. And no mean feat! The resulting "carpet" is stunning.

The other versions I've heard are by no means terribly inferior, not at all. This version though has the slight edge to me, and so it is the new favorite. It is one of the key works of the later Modern Era, I should think at this point. And if as Yogi said it "gets late early," in part it is because of  works like For John Cage that leap forward a considerable spatio-temporal distance now that we can measure the time between the writing of it and the experiencing of it today.

Very recommended.

Friday, November 16, 2018

A Vaughan Williams Christmas, Old Carols with Vaughan Williams Arrangements, William Vann, Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital Chelsea

There is a truism that what might be too much of something for one person might be just enough for another. Nothing could be truer for music. I can remember the look of astonishment, even anger on a cashier's face when I would total up maybe $100 worth of LPs at a local record chain. Once the music esoteria specialist (hard to imagine there would have been  one now) actually explained to a new cashier as I was checking out that "people who are into Classical and Jazz tend to buy more records than other people!" Well if that wasn't the case? It still is I suspect.

So it also generally holds true for the serious music enthusiast who plays some Christmas Holiday music around this time of year. (I post this a little early so I do not forget.) The more you know the more there potentially is. Today I have a no-brainer, especially for those who love to explore the really old traditional carols, and for that matter those who love the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams. Given Vaughan Williams' deep appreciation of folk music and the local rooted music one could find around him there should be some connection between the two, so those that love the one might well love the other. Or then again there are those up for something substantially musical, who may not especially think about the composer or the tradition of English caroling, and again, this fits the bill. It is music you can love at first sight (hearing)  or come to love in time, I feel.

I speak of a recent album this season called A Vaughan Williams Christmas (Albion Records 035). Albion Records is the CD producing arm of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society, and I have covered a number of their records on these pages, for they have been coming out with good things of interest to any Vaughan Williams enthusiast.

It consists of four groups of carols for choir (and often organ accompaniment) with the deft hand of Vaughan Williams taking a prominent role, either as arranger or in a few instances composer. So we have "Eight Traditional English Carols" (1919), "Two carols" (1945) (in a World Premier recording), "Carols from the Oxford Book of Carols" (1928) and "Nine Carols for male voices" (1941) in the first complete recording.

So we also have (happily) for the entirety of this recording the Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital of Chelsea under William Vann. Hugh Rowlands is on organ for around half the carols. They all sound quite good, as good as one might wish for! All involved are clearly up for this music and the voices are angelic indeed.

For the Vaughan Williams arrangements Ralph is not overly interventional. He may at times bring out the beauty of the melody by scoring the choir to sing in octave unison while the organ fills in harmony, and there are some nice counter lines we can appreciate here and there. Mostly though it is Vaughan Williams's sure hand for choral scoring we feel and appreciate and his good taste in choosing some quite obscure carols peppered with some favorites such as "God Rest You Merry Gentlemen" and the "Coventry Carol." It is not a grouping of the tired and endless carols we sometimes find again and again. No "Silent Night!"  And to me that is a very good thing. They are some really fetching carols that are presented in near ideal performance and arrangement situations. One can most certainly not complain to hear his versions of "A Virgin Most Pure," "Wassail Song" (the other one!), and "On Christmas Night."

One must note that Vaughan Williams himself had much to do with the revival of old folk songs in general and carols in particular. He helped greatly in the collecting and preservation of them and had a hand as a co-editor of the comprehensive and influential 1928 Oxford Book of Carols (which we hear a nice selection from here.) The book in fact was a real factor in the resurgence of old carols, and so well we might appreciate all of this now, when we do still need to embrace old music traditions and keep them alive. All you who are musical anyway!

The original Vaughan Williams carols here are well worth having as well.

I view this collection as a real boon. The carols are very beautiful, the arrangements sterling, the performances stellar. I certainly plan to pop this one on every year from now on. I heartily recommend it for all who want to expand the holiday possibilities and get something memorable and haunting in the process. Happy this music! Splendid!

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Wet Ink 20, Modern Chamber Ensemble Music of the Present Day, the Wet Ink Large Ensemble

There is a facet of today's New Modern Music that sometimes gets scant attention. That is the fertile relationship that flourishes at times between very modern improvisation or so-called "Jazz" and New Music. Ever since the onset of Jazz in the US Modern Classical composers have had responses to it. One might only think of Gershwin, Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Milhaud for starters, then Zimmerman, Penderecki, and others in the later High Modernist camp. At the same time with the advent of "New Thing" out of the music of Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, John Coltrane and others there was a kind of open freely improvisational stance that eventually led to some very productive confluences of Jazz Improv and New Music from the other side of the spectrum.

Both aspects of the confluence can be heard in the recent recording of very New Music by the Wet Ink Large Ensemble. The album is simply entitled Wet Ink 20  (Carrier 041). It gives us six compositions in a very adventuresome zone that often enough shows influences of Avant Jazz as well as New Music. So we get a long and exciting opening work "Auditory Scene Analysis" by Eric Woebbels. It has the very avid sort of pointillist counterpoint one can hear in large ensemble jazz music as well as the sort of post-Webernian, post-Ivesian ideas of simultaneity and difference that have been developing on the opposite side of the aesthetic coin.

In order to play this music with the kind of heightened spirit that such a style needs, an ensemble should have some grounding in both camps. The Wet Ink group grew productively out of a core septet of composer-improviser-performers. In fact of these core members Alex Mincek, Eric Woebbels, Kate Soper and Sam Pluta each contribute a composition to this program, so four of six are home-grown works.  All of the septet looms large in the readings of the music. They take the lead in giving the music a spontaneous dynamic that furnishes everything with a convincing ring. Of the other composers Anthony Braxton is by now of course well known as a pioneer in forwarding the avant-new nexus, ever since by around 1969 when he first began receiving international attention and acclaim. As for the other non-ensemble composer Katherine Young I will admit I have not been familiar until now, but she gives us something excellent in her "Like A Halo."

A run-down of each work would not be practical for this article, and in the end all participate in the improv-composed nexus so fully and so well that the entire program can be and ultimately is (in my case) experienced as a kind of gestalt whole. The entire sequence is an outstanding example of how two stylistic worlds can and do merge with complete synergy and performatively stellar results.

If you give this one your complete attention and allow it to reverberate in your listening mind with repeated listens you will find it a landmark example of where Modernity has gone, one of the very productive places that neither looks back very far nor does it compromise in its zeal for an energetic expressionism. Not everything need sound like this, and good for all that, but this is a very valid way to make the "music of the future" as New Music has ever envisioned. It is a treat for the ears. By all means get it if you can. And listen! The Wet Ink Ensemble is doing important work.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Jo Kondo, Syzygia, Snow's Falling, Craig Pepples, Pine Cones Fall, Paul Zukofsky

In the world of present-day High Modernism, it is true that there is a great deal of leeway around how a composer might proceed. There is a wider spectrum of possibilities one might address without generating some official or unofficial disapproval. The Dodecaphonic dogma days have been gone for a rather long while and though much excellent music was produced out of that working vision, there are other ways one can go of course, then and now. And happily there is no shortage of really interesting music to be heard today, as I mentioned in yesterday's posting.

An especially attractive offering just come to my attention is a three-work CD (CP2 CP 125) directed and conducted by New Music adept Paul Zukofsky, recorded in 2016, in the year before he left our world. It is music with a pronounced ambiance, a soundful stillness born out of the processes of nature, the reflections on life in-between the living of it, a perspective on the Zen of "suchness" perhaps. Harmonically the music is well within the Modern zone, without an insistent tonality, yet not especially dissonant. If you thought about it, if you listened hard enough you might establish a key center in your head, yet this is not music that is particularly tonal in some typical sense.

If you thought of Morton Feldman's classical music phases you might have some idea of this music, yet it is not directly derivable from this way of going forth. So that is only a rough idea of what you might imagine this music as.

So to the music itself, then. Jo Kondo gives us two of his compositions and they are both really worthwhile. "Syzygia" is performed nicely by a small chamber orchestra configuration handled well by Ensemble Nomad. It is a near atonal chorale sort of sound, ever wafting new combinations of tones and pronounced wind timbral transformations that are almost lyrical in their confluence. That is, if you are listening with an expanded New Music set of ears.

Jo Kondo's "Snow's Falling" gives us a long meditative sprawl of natural expanded gentle endlessness, thanks to The Tokyo Philharmonic Chorus and pianist Satoko Inoue.

Craig Pepples brings up the middle of the program with Ensemble Nomad sounding his "Pine Cones Fall," like the other works a highly evocative ambient sculpture in slow motion, but in this case adding a near-pointillism of give-and-take between each instrument. Everything winds out as a natural growth, paceless dream, every instrument sounding its part in groups ever shifting. It is beautifully mesmerizing.

Paul Zukofsky with his dedicated focus on these three works reminds us how central a figure he was. I cannot imagine a more moving performance of these pieces. The renderings are seemingly as poetically executed as they were meant to sound. It is a masterful outing, in every way palpable in its peaceful yet insistent singularity. It reminds us that New Music can still be was "new" as it should be, that there can be a joy in the sheer viscous pleasure of the present-in-future, in the visceral presence of the hearing of it.

For you unabashed Modernists out there, and even those who are not quite sure but ready for something different, I give you my highest recommendation for this one. It is some awesome music.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Rory Cowal, Clusters, American Piano Explorations

Sometimes the world seems far from ideal these days, in terms of a breeding ground for the new, for the musical, for the creative. And over here in the US, perhaps on some levels things are even farther from perfection than they have been in some time. Yet new music, new recordings are continuing to come out, thankfully. And there is no shortage of good ones.

Today we have a chance to talk a little about the recent anthology album Clusters: American Piano Explorations (New World Records 80800-2). It consists of eight compositions for solo piano by seven American composers, played by pianist Rory Cowal. The period covered is fairly long, 1931-2018, or in other words much of the Modern Period. The works are either unheard or little known, or only now just written, with the "ink" still perhaps a bit damp. All in some way exemplify the kind of local iconoclasm of the titular Father of Modern American Piano Music, Charles Ives, though none sound exactly like they were written with his model in mind, as much as he might have had one. The composers here are determined to go their own way and they do.

There is a common thread to this music that seem best served by the subtitle term "explorations." That does not mean that the music was composed according to some set paradigm then current, or for that matter now-current. All undoubtedly are Modern in the sense of being melodically and-or harmonically less classical in some old-Europe way, though the influence may never be entirely absent as an assumption. But then "Jazz" might also be assumed at least some of the time. Some are a bit on the edgy side, some kind of home-spun without being self-consciously so. All are waywardly themselves, not orthodox in some channeled typicality. And expression seems upper-most on the agenda in this music. Nicely so.

So first off I am happy that the title work "Clusters" starts off the program. It's from 1931/36, in six short movements, written by Johanna Magdalena Beyer (1888-1944). It is confident music, well determined to be exploratory. But who is this? The liners tell us. "Clusters" was brought out of obscurity by Rory. He gave maybe only the second known performance of it in 2013. Beyer was an accomplished pianist who wrote a few piano suites and individual piano works we should probably hear all of. She was friend and pupil of the illustrious Henry Cowell, from whom she took the idea of complex dissonant simultaneities, "clusters." Nice.

I am very happy the anthology contains works by two pianists-composers who have been key figures in "Avant Jazz," namely Muhal Richard Abrams (1930-2017) and Kris Davis (b. 1980), the former the AACM giant, the latter emerging on the scene right now and a little before now.  Abrams' "Etudes Op. 1, No. 1" (2000) and Davis's "Eight Pieces for the Vernal Equinox" (2018) are well worth hearing and hearing, performed with dedication by Rory Cowal.

The same can be said for James Tenney's very brief "Variations in A (on a theme by my father)" (1955).

By the same token, all of this music seems pretty essential, far from superfluous. All of it is engaging and well-presented. And that includes additional works by Thomas Peterson (1931-2006), Daniel Goode (b. 1936), and two by David Mahler (b. 1944).

Everything is valuable and has the freshness of the unheard-by-most-of-us, perhaps all of us. There is not a note wasted. And Rory Cowal chooses well, then comes through with committed poetics. Bravo! Hear this. Do it. No fear.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Bach, Christmas Oratorio, Bachchor Mainz, Bachorchester Mainz, Ralf Otto

Johann Sebastian Bach may be an unearthly figure, one of music's true titans. The longer I live the more I feel this way. Yet in some ways he is like all other composers. It may be rather obvious but as wonderful as his music is the quality of any given performance will help determine how you feel about his music. For years I have listened to his Christmas Oratorio in versions that were respectable but it turns out not exactly inspired. As a result I've mostly looked to his St. Matthew Passion as something on the very highest levels of inspiration in the large-scale solo-choir-orchestra mode. Yet a couple of weeks ago I had the good fortune of receiving a new version of the Christmas Oratorio (Naxos 8.574001-02) by some fine soloists, the Bachchor Mainz and the Bachorchester Mainz, all under the direction of Ralf Otto.

As soon as I heard the really peppy opening Jauchzet frohlocket with its timpani blazing, I knew I was in a superior presence, I knew this version was special. And it is. They revel in the lyrical tangibility of the arias, with soloist and normally some instrument winding a counterline alongside and underneath with detailed sonority and emphasis, the tutti sections with full choir and orchestra really rousing and on-target. This rendition clearly relishes the musical content and gives it special care, which is much more than what I can say for the versions I have lived with so long. It does for the Oratorio what Mogens Woldike did for me with the St Matthew so long ago (and continues to do). Otto's interpretation scarifies the music. It lets nothing insignificant pass without careful consideration and airing. And of course there is very little in this music that might be considered insignificant.

One might quibble that parts of this Oratorio appeared before in his Cantatas. So? Are his Cantatas somehow inferior? But I do not try to put up a straw man here as much as refute what occasionally has crossed my mind in listening to lesser versions of this work. All that is in the past now, pretty much, because this version gives to the music all that I might wish it have. Everything fits nicely on two CDs and at the Naxos price, you do not have to go broke to own it. A real value is this one. And I am very happy to have the performances. They are to me a new benchmark. This version will doubtless take over in my Christmas listening cycle going forward. So I highly recommend it to you. Do not hesitate.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Franz Lachner, Symphony No. 3, Evergreen Symphony Orchestra, Gernot Schmalfuss

Theoretically there can be no end to the number of music-makers, the number of composers we can hear in our lifetime.  The only limitation is the finite length of a life and the finite number of opportunities there might be to hear unfamiliar music. Now happens to be a pretty good time to explore. And so I have been drinking rather heartily at the well of the unknown. And I try and report in as always.

So this morning I bring to you another composer I at least have not heard before. It is Franz Lachner (1803-1890).  Now who is that? The liners to the CD at hand this morning tell us that during his lifetime he was at the very center of a lively controversy in the German-Speaking world. It all started in 1835 when Lachner's 5th Symphony was chosen by Concerts spirituels as the best among 57 symphonies submitted for a competition for the best unperformed new symphonic work. After its premiere one journalist praised it, calling it poetic, but Schumann (then a prominent music critic) retorted, characterizing it essentially as style-less and bloated.  A journalistic battle royale ensued between virtually all-and-sundry musical spokesmen of note in the German speaking world. The music public greeted the Lachner's Fifth with the clamor they had given for Beethoven's Ninth and a recent Spohr symphony, according to the liners.

Fast forward ahead to today, where most of us know nothing of the hubbub on Lachner's 5th that seemed so central then. Franz Lachner is not someone we include in the standard repertoire these days. In fact his music has sunk into a true obscurity.  I myself have never come across his music at all until now.

So we have the chance to consider him with a new CD at hand, a recording of his Symphony No. 3 (CPO 555081-2) (op. 41 in D minor), as performed by the Evergreen Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Gernot Schmalfuss. The most obvious thing to note is that the 3rd with four movements each lasting over ten minutes in this performance was pretty long for its time period. It does go on. The music does not seem at all "bloated" however. It is well constructed, perhaps not as thematically stunning as some other, more familiar works of its time. But then as you listen a few times it is in no way aimless. With often a pretty dominant string presence it is not especially daring orchestrationally, in the way the parts are apportioned. That of course was a critique we might still hear about the symphonies of Schumann himself. In neither Lachner's case here nor in Schumann's case does that bother me. And there are enough spells in this Lachner 3rd where the winds have enough of a say that it is not unrelenting.

Some of the contrapuntal passages in the second, scherzo movement to me are compelling. And there is a Beethovinian-Brahmsian bravura fanfare kind of aura that one cannot say is unpleasant, far from it.

Added to the program is Lachner's fairly brief "Festouverture in Es-Dur" to conclude things. It ends in the version here with the present-day German national anthem (there is another version that ends elsewise). All fine and dandy and well done. Papa Haydn incorporated this melody, ,the then-Austrian national anthem, into a string quartet so there is a precedent. .

At any rate one comes away from this quite decently performed program with the feeling that Lachner deserves a hearing. He is not in any way inferior as a craftsman. The questions will be for you, will you like the music? I like it just fine. It does not yet strike me thematically like some of its contemporary parallels, but then I may need to live with it a while longer.

Surely anyone interested in the post-Beethovinian 19th-century musical climate should hear this recording and learn something. Perhaps with a few listens you will come to love this music. It is not unlovable! Recommended.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Ann Southam, Soundspinning, Christina Petrowska Quilico

The late (and I would add great) Canadian Minimalist Ann Southam (1937-2010) has not exactly become a household name, not at least here in the States, but that should never stop those who love music. In the last decade I have been happy to discover a number of recordings of her compositions (type her name in the search box above, left, for reviews of those I have first heard while writing this column.)

And to my happiness there is another volume of her piano music to hear, namely Soundspinning (Centredisques 26018), featuring Christina Petrowska Quilico and her sympathetic and idiomatic pianism. There are series of miniatures to be heard on this program, many most mesmerizing and singular in their clustering of motility,  not typically repetitive in ways of some of the standard classical Minimalists. In other words these show some somewhat different sides of the Southam originality  They are other glimpses at the Southam way.

So there are the sort of clusterbomb dervishes that spin past our ears in the first part of the program. And then there are the series of short pieces with "blue" in the titles, which delve into blues-rock-jazz realms without being in any way direct lifts of the genre staples.

If you do not know Southam's music at all, check my other CD reviews of her music in this column by typing her name in the search box above. You might be better served by starting with one of them first. Those who already know the earlier examples will nevertheless find this one illuminating and worthwhile. Maestro Southam is gone but most assuredly NOT forgotten. She was an original and her music still sounds great. So check her out. And hear this one for sure.

Charpentier, Les Arts Florissans, Ensemble Marguerite Louise, Gaetan Jarry

Time rolls on as always. Meanwhile the French Baroque keeps calling to me and I respond! Really good period performances are out there lately and I will bring them to you as I get to hear them. Today we turn to the potent and poetic composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1663-1704). We contemplate a major operatic work, a five-scene allegorical divertissement meant to celebrate Louis XIVth's reign, of territorial expansion and things that patrons generally foot the bill for in those days. And so we have Les Arts Florissans and a brief related work L'Couronne de fleurs. We hear both works in ideal performances by the Ensemble Marguerite Louis under the very capable direction of Gaetan Jarry as part of the Chateau de Versailles Spectacles series released on the Chateau de Versailles label (release 001).

In this excellent program of both works we get all the reasons why the French Baroque in general and Charpentier in particular are a thing apart. This music has a sweetness not ordinarily a typical part of the Baroque. There is lyrical heft, which period performances bring out well in part for the string sonarity the way it is meant to sound, but also in this case the winds and their plaintive melodiousness. Then in a performance such as this, the vocalists too have a genuine warmth that goes with the entire ambiance. Soloists and small choral group alike sound as angelic as they should.

The quality of the invention too is of the highest order. Without that we would have sweet trifles, confection without nutritive value. Not here. This is not an extraordinarily contrapuntal music, and that is true in many ways of the entire French Baraque, as I remark the other day in my review of the Lully Effect (see that review in the index). Yet it is there in the continuo certainly, the bass lines especially, and at times in the vocal parts. This does not have the incredible contrapuntal brilliance of a Bach. But it makes up for that with an immediacy of melody line and a productively lyrical intensity we respond to all quite willingly and happily, or I do anyway. It is music of definite substance.

One would find fault with these performances with great difficulty. The music sounds as great as it is, as poignant in the delivery as in its latency as written score. This is what Charpentier should sound like. And what that is certainly makes for a most exciting and lovely musical excursion. Brilliant! Highly recommended.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Michael Finnissy, Six Sexy Minuets Three Trios, etc, Kreutzer Quartet, Linda Merrick

One of the real joys of hearing most all the new Metier releases is getting the chance to explore many releases in their ongoing series on the music of Michael Finnissy. And the latest release has me smiling ear-to-ear because the music is especially good. I speak of the album of chamber music called Six Sexy Minuets Three Trios and Other Works (Metier 28581).

It is a nicely performed set of a couple of miniature gems and three major chamber offerings. The latter consist of the title work, plus "Civilization" and "Clarinetten-Liederkreis." From the opening bars of "Civilization," we are in the presence of a very Neo-High-Modern, Neo-Classical; or even Neo-Early sensibility. And the rhythmic strikingness of the first movement reminds us that Finnissy has neither ignored the Neo-Classical Stravinsky nor has he chosen to follow in his footsteps in any obvious way. Like Stravinsky there is an irresistible rhythmic drive yet is is all Finnissy, all the way.

The Kreutzer Quartet with Linda Merrick joining for one work on clarinet have a real feel for, a real understanding of the quirky, funny yet very serious way of this music. The moods vary in many ways throughout. And so in a way the old idea of a portrayal of the "four humors" in art is not entirely out of place, though perhaps not intended exactly either. The ghost of Papa Haydn and even Henry Purcell and John Dowland is not all that far. You feel they might be listening, asking thsemvlces, "what is this fellow up to?"And in the end you walk away from this program with a distinct feeling that Michael Finnissy is one of our living greats, that no one precisely has his expressive
referentiality, his ability to point backwards and in so doing pointing forwards because the pointing is multi-directional and entirely idiomatic to self.

Listen to the six brilliant movements of "Civilization," the pithy, startling mix of early and late on "Contrapunctus XIX," the refreshingly moody and tart "Clarinetten-Liederkreis," the romping, slightly unhinged "Mad Men in the Sand," the hauntingly wry, reflective and avant-brio "Six Sexy Minuets Three Trios" and you will find yourself on unique turf. Finnissy manages to get some of the string wielding ways of earlier chamber music evoked but yet with the unabashed adventurism of the 'future" as it were.

I am happy to say that (to me) this album stands out as a triumph in the chamber arts of Modernity today. Finnissy is a true voice of our times. These are some superb examples of why it is a fine thing to be alive and greet the morning with a little hope. We will end up leaving some good things behind for others to appreciate after we all are gone. I would venture to say that this music may well be remembered long after some other, less happy things are forgotten.

Strongly recommended to all who wish to embrace the Modernism of now.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Weinberg, Symphony No. 13, Serenade for Orchestra, Siberian State Symphony Orchestra, Vladimir Lande

If there were ever two sides to Mieczyslaw Weinberg the composer (1919-1996) (and there were) you can hear it on the new release of two World Premier recordings, that of the Symphony No. 13 and the Serenade for Orchestra No. 4 (Naxos 8.573879). The Naxos series of Weinberg orchestral works continues, very happily, as the Siberian State Symphony under the ever-productive and even inspired Vladimir Lande chalk up a very nice performance of one of Weinberg's most dramatic scores (the 13th) and then one of his most sunshine-drenched ones (the Serenade).

I won't rehearse his biography here. Look that up. He had plenty of reasons to be unhappy with his lot. But the 13th is a profound channeling of what sounds like despair, 1976-style. Lande and company give it all the torque and aesthetically deflected passion it demands. And it becomes one of Weinberg's most captivating scores in their hands. It is more evidence that the Weinberg revival is one of the most exciting ones in our time. "Revival" is maybe inaccurate. "Vival?"

The liners tell us that the 13th is dedicated by Weinberg to the memory of his mother, who died in a Polish camp along with his father and sister in the early '40s. (They were Jews at a time when in Poland that was a crime.) Add to that the death of his friend and supporter Shostakovitch not long before he wrote this symphony. If the mood is downcast, there is a noble dignity in his cry to the high heavens, a sublimity of expression that transcends all of it, and here on a rainy Monday morning after the end of Daylight Savings Time in the US, it is sounding very good to me indeed. I will not attempt to describe the music here, for it must be heard repeatedly a few times before it all comes into focus and so that truly is the way to go forward in understanding. It sounds very Modern, very Weinbergian. And it is in every way a worthwhile work in the Weinberg canon.

On the opposite end is the concluding Serenade, which shifts into a most lighthearted mood. The Naxos back cover blurb calls it "rumbustious!" Well maybe so. It is markedly chipper yet reflective, something no doubt that might get performances in the world Weinberg occupied in 1952, a Stalin ruled,  social realist kind of place. So it is a perhaps ironic yet a fitting way to end because ends on a hopeful note and we still hear Weinberg's inventive brilliance at play.

This one is a most welcome gem in the Naxos Weinberg series. You cannot go wrong at this price. And everybody should give Weinberg a hearing. This is a good place to start. Or too a great place to continue. Bravo!

Friday, November 2, 2018

Franz Schreker, The Birthday of the Infanta - Suite, and Other Works, Jo Ann Falletta

We can try but we cannot completely put ourselves in the mindset of another time and place. So the idea that Franz Schreker (1878-1934) was in his day as well-known for his operas as Richard Strauss is startling but then, face it, it is an indication of the total if perhaps momentary later victory of Modernism that Schreker is no longer remembered and even Strauss himself is no longer quite what he might have been 70 years ago.  For in the end neither could be considered as a Modernist teleology-figure, a cornerstone in the narrative of the Modernist foundation.

In the end all that does not matter in some argument-ending way. We can look and find many composers who may not have contributed directly to the Modernist end-zone celebrations that were so completely convincing in the mid-1960s of last century. And we know today perhaps that no style will ever wipe out what went before, nor should it. And so we can listen to Schreker without thereby buying into any sort of future whatsoever.  Schreker's fate we must also point out was tainted by the rise of the Nazi "degenerate" ban that became a tragic roadblock for so many Austro-German composers of the day, indeed most. Schreker was blacklisted. He did not live to see the end of the fascist movement. And his reputation suffered as a consequence.

We have plenty to absorb in a new program of Schreker orchestral fare, The Birth of the Enfanta - Suite and other works (Naxos 8.573821) as very effectively performed by the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra (Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin) conducted by JoAnn Falletta. There are three works at hand in this program. And between the three we get a good idea of how inventive a melodist and how sure an orchestrationist was Schreker.

His 1914 "Vorspiel zu einem Drama" is a cogent 20-minute slab of music, a concert overture to go with his then-celebrated opera Die Gezeichneten. We gather from this, along with the 1923 title Suite "Birth of the Infanta" and the earlier, 1903 "Romantische Suite" a Schreker of Romantic-chromatic originality. We look in vain for the seeds of a Webern or a Schoenberg, but then that is no longer a necessary prerequisite for appreciating an early-Modern-period voice!

What is interesting perhaps listening to these fine performances is what Schreker is NOT. He does not sound like Bruckner or Mahler, not even so obviously does he channel the influence of Wagner. For these reasons and for the high spirits of the performances (which we have come to expect when Ms. Falletta is involved) I do not hesitate to recommend this album. Anyone with an interest in the Austro-German Modern scene and the bubbling of the new century 100 years ago will learn from this. And it is a very happy listen!

Thursday, November 1, 2018

John Harbison, Requiem, Giancarlo Guerrero, Nashville Symphony Chorus and Orchestra

John Harbison (b.1938), most everyone will know, was one of the prominent American composers of the last "unchallenged" wave of High Modernism. I mean that he was more or less the last group of High Modernists who came onto the scene when that style of music was ascendant and unquestioned as the stylistically dominant force. Today of course we live in a time of pluralistic proliferation, where no one style commands contemporary authority.

The current music by Harbison as we experience it in the recent release of his Requiem (Naxos 8.559841) has something of the old High Modernist roots to it but also a kind of chromatic Tonal dramatic Quasi-Romantic emotive Expressiveness to it. It is meant as a work that takes into account some of the tumult of the times, notably the world as we experience it from 9-11 on. And the Requiem Latin tradition contrapuntally and otherwise can be detected as a thorough flavoring of the whole.

So it is a most ambitious work. After five hearings it does not jump out at me. It is very well written. The chorus and orchestra are commanding, though every singer has it seems a bit more vibrato than I would like to hear in this sort of Modernity, both the choir and the soloists.  And so that is a matter of personal taste I suppose. There are moments here that sound a little closer to Berlioz than Mozart, and I suppose that fits with the wide arc of contemporary events of a tragic sort that the music no doubt reflects.

Harbison began thinking of the work in 1965, and off-and-on composed parts of it until 2001, when a commission from the Boston Symphony Orchestra allowed him to cull together the pieces of the work and seriously realize the actual shape of the music as we now know it. The text incorporates the Latin Mass, plus some other material, such as an old Medieval poem with an archaic quality. He took all that he had thought of over the years and set out in earnest to flesh out the entire work as a full presence from September 2001 to March 2002. Of course this was the time of 9-11 and its aftermath. But too Harbison over the 15 years of its initial gestation had added names of people that touched his life and had died during that period, so it is a feeling of personal loss that guided his musical thrust as much as collective feelings of loss coming out of his time frame of final completion and reworking.

So we hear the work today, as it took final form in March of 2002. There is some close to an hour of performance time, and it is is in two parts. Soloists, chorus and orchestra interact thoroughly throughout. As I am working though my sixth listen while writing this, I hear the notes and appreciate the inventive choices the composer has made. And the orchestra sounds quite appropriate.  The soloists and chorus are suitably dramatic. So what is wrong? It all comes across as a work of a very moving sort. But I feel vaguely unsatisfied. That does not mean I am somehow objectively infallible! I've listened, for example. to Beethoven's "Missa solemnis" very many times and somehow it has alluded me, it has never quite clicked with me as opposed to most all of his other works. I find myself wondering if the same is not going to be the case with Harbison's "Requiem?"

In each case I recognize that there is some great music here. And with the Harbison it is possible that I would take to it in another reading? I cannot say.

I will not say I do not recommend this CD. Anyone who likes Harbison should hear this and decide for self. It is substantial. It is a monument or a memory stone of the times. I am glad to have it. I may end up liking it a lot. I cannot say that now. There are some thrilling passages. And some things do not quite get to me yet. It does not seem to grab me all that much. C'est la vie.